Prime public park land under the Queensboro Bridge in Manhattan will remain a privately run tennis bubble – despite years of protest from locals and pols who say it’s a waste of space and exorbitantly expensive.
“While the Upper East Side has among the lowest amount of public park space in the city, Sutton East Tennis sits on City park land but is not accessible to most community members, because it charges rates as high as $225 an hour,” Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the district encompassing the courts, wrote in a letter to the Parks Department arguing against any private control over the Queensboro Oval Tennis Courts.
The Parks Department is set to award a contract for a new operator of the courts, according to Parks’ request for new operators issued in March.
Sutton East charges up to $225 per hour for doubles on weekends, but prices are as low as $15 an hour during the summer months. Those with a seasonal tennis pass from the Parks Department do not have to pay an added fee during summer months.
The highest rates at the Queensboro Oval Courts are more than two times the prices at the next most expensive indoor court on city property — Sportime.
The Randall’s Island facility charges $110 per hour for prime-time weekend play.
“As a tennis player in a city that doesn’t have a lot of options, when the winter comes it’s extremely expensive to play indoors,” said Autumn Polansky, who lives on the Upper West Side and was playing at the Sutton East Tennis Club on Thursday.
Another player, Ron Dubren, who travels from his downtown neighborhood to the East 59th Street courts, said he thinks the facility is “terrific,” but in the winter, “I just don’t come . . . it’s too expensive.”
Instead, Dubren said he plays at McCarren Tennis Club in Brooklyn, which charged $75 an hour last winter, according to its website. An employee who answered the phone at McCarren said it plans to increase the rates 15 to 20 percent next year to keep up with market rates.
Some Sutton Place residents said they support the club – and its rates.
“If someone can’t afford it, that’s their problem,” said Harry Wittlin. “They’ve been talking about getting rid of it for years. It’ll never happen. Too many people play here.”
Parks has yet to award a new contract, spokeswoman Crystal Howard said Thursday.
The city’s original contract with Sutton East expired last year but was extended for an additional 12 months while the agency “fully considered the site’s long-term best use,” according to a report.
The agency said it will favor operators “that include prices and rates that demonstrate variety and affordability.”
Some Upper East Siders say cheaper tennis isn’t what they’re looking for.
The local community board views the Sutton Place Tennis Club’s deal with the city as a “privatization of a public park,” according to Community Board 8 member Peggy Price, and has argued — for years – that the city should convert the tennis bubble into free-roaming park space.
“This is using a public park and handing it over to a private tennis club,” Price said.
Until last year, the city met the community board’s demands and removed the inflatable structure that covers the courts during the summer months. But the “situation has increasingly gotten worse in that we had some access, and now it’s completely shut off,” Price said.
Tony Scolnick, owner of the Sutton East Tennis Club, defended the rates and said “it’s the Parks’ decision” to keep the facility a tennis court.
“This is a real clay court, that’s what makes this place special as a tennis facility,” he said. “This is red clay that is used to play in Paris at the French Open.”
When Parks would remove the bubble and open the space as a softball field, “there were days when no one would come,” Scolnick said. “Homeless people used to hang out here.”
Scolnick also pointed to a petition to keep the facility a tennis club that has gained more than 4,000 signatures and counting.
“Let the Parks department know how valuable these courts are to tennis players, families and children from all over NYC; particularly those living on the Upper East Side,” the petition says.
Scolnick’s club pays the city about $2.6 million a year to use the 1.25 acres — designated a public playground in 1909 by the now-defunct Board of Aldermen. Kallos notes the amount is “very far below market rate.”
“This is the mayor setting aside the park for the rich and powerful,” he seethed. “It’s grandfathered-in patronage.”